Improve Your Writing Skills

Good writing matters more in the age of IM, email and PowerPoint. We’ll help you make sure you get your point across with these tips.

Improve Your Writing Skills

As more business communications are conducted through email, instant messaging, PowerPoint presentations and other written forms, writing ability can help today's professionals set themselves apart. The ability to write clearly in reports or white papers is necessary to advance.

"Rightly or wrongly, people judge their colleagues based on their writing ability," says R. Craig Hogan, director of the Business Writing Center and author of Explicit Business Writing. "Those who write poorly are viewed as less intelligent, less educated and less competent. Those who are articulate are seen as intelligent, educated and capable."

In fact, business professionals may not realize how much poor writing skills can impede their careers. "It's a silent killer," Hogan says.

Why Writing Matters

A College Board survey of business leaders found widespread concern about employees' writing ability. Consider these findings:

  • About half the companies surveyed said writing ability is considered when promoting employees.

  • Nearly all companies said they would hold poorly written job application materials against candidates.

  • American companies spend more than $3.1 billion each year to remedy writing deficiencies.

The fast-paced, technology-driven world in which we work further complicates matters. New communication mediums, such as text and instant messages, lead many of us to use their abbreviated style in more traditional communications. "They're transferring that shorthand to general business correspondence," says Salvatore J. Iacone, who developed the American Management Association's "Effective Technical Writing" course and is author of Write to the Point.

Tips for Better Business Writing

Writing instructors and authors of the College Board report agree: Good writing is a skill developed and honed over years, not with quick fixes. Even so, these tips can help improve your writing:

  • Determine Your Writing's Objective or Goal: Are you seeking a consensus on a project plan? Asking a client to clarify a concern? Knowing your goal will help you determine how to approach a piece of writing.

  • Identify Your Audience: Is this for your boss? A colleague? Or, as sometimes happens, colleagues with both technical and nontechnical backgrounds? Your tone and message will likely differ depending on your audience, and you may need to revise your writing to address specific audiences. Iacone recommends crafting different summaries for different readers.

  • Spell Out Words: Shorthand may be appropriate when IMing a colleague, but it's not in a client email.
  • Edit: Read and reread your messages, especially those to managers and clients.

  • Define Technical Terms in the Document: Placing definitions in parentheses, rather than in a separate glossary, will help maintain your document's flow.

  • Use Headings, Subheads and Bulleted Lists: These help you organize your writing and guide readers.

  • Get Help: Professional associations may offer writing courses, while community colleges and universities often provide business-writing classes suitable as well. And business writing references can help you learn the basics of syntax, grammar and good business writing.

Finally, when putting pen to paper, remember this adage, Iacone says: "If the writer doesn't sweat, the reader will."